One year into the Arizona Interscholastic Association's 'reorganization,' we have a mess

We're now one year into the Arizona Interscholastic Association's draconian "reorganization" plan, and the results thus far are even worse than many of those who actually care about high school athletics had feared: blowout losses involving badly mismatched teams; an increase in rules violations involving recruiting and illegal transfers as teams scramble for scarce playoff slots; and small schools canceling athletic programs rather than watching their student-athletes get their heads kicked in by much-larger schools.

The AIA, acting in its own interest instead of the interests of the member schools that pay the organization's expenses through athlete-participation fees, cut the seven classifications (generally based on enrollment) down to four or fewer in most sports. Then it doubled down on its exclusionary practices by making it much harder to go to state tournaments in both individual and team sports.

Part of the AIA's plan involved the elimination of athletic conferences and natural rivalries, some of which date back to before World War II. Arizona's small schools, which used to be Class 1A, have been thrown into the deep end against much-larger schools that used to be in Class 2A. The results have been ridiculous. In last May's state track meet, the top nine (and 17 of the top 20) spots in the team standings went to former 2A schools. When 1A coaches cried foul, the AIA's tin-eared response was that former 1A athletes and coaches would just need to work harder (which is an insult, suggesting as it does that these people weren't working hard before).

With the aforementioned elimination of conferences (and the time-honored tradition of competing to win conference championships), the AIA took it upon itself to make the schedules for every team in Arizona, with computerized results that range from hilarious to disastrous. Last year, both Tanque Verde High and the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind were part of the 1A-South Conference. This year, ASDB has to play Rio Rico, which last year was a 4A school, and Tanque Verde is matched up against Sahuaro, which a few years ago was a 5A school.

It comes as no surprise, then, that during the first week of this current basketball season, games involving Southern Arizona teams have had scores of 49-3, 70-8 and 60-5. Who benefits from that?

(I'm sure there are some who would suggest that, since I coach at a small school, my problems with the AIA can be traced to some variation of sour grapes. Well, my team, as of this writing is 8-1 and ranked sixth in the state, so it's not that. I'm actually disappointed that more people from successful programs aren't standing up for those who are being excluded.)

The AIA originally used three excuses to implement the plan that has resulted in a drastic slashing of postseason athletic opportunities for Arizona's high school athletes. It combined one legitimate concern (travel costs in a bad economy) with one that is largely a red herring (lost classroom time, with which Arizona's student-athletes have been successfully dealing for decades), and another (a mostly false financial crisis) that, even if true (considering that the AIA has a multi-million-dollar contingency fund), is mostly self-inflicted.

Consider this example: Keeping in mind that the AIA gets to keep all state-tournament gate receipts, for some unknown reason, it insists on holding the small-school state basketball championship tournament in remote Prescott. Small-school teams are forced to play first-round games on Friday mornings in mostly empty gyms. (Not a lot of parents can afford to travel to Prescott, spend the night in a hotel and miss work on Friday to watch a kid play.) If the AIA allowed higher-seeded teams to play home games, the AIA could probably makes tens of thousands of dollars. A home game at, say, St. David would probably draw around 300 people; at $10 per adult and $6 per child, that's a gate of around $2,400. Multiply that by 16 (eight girls' games and eight boys' games), and you're almost to $40,000. That's a sizable amount.

Instead, the AIA holds tournaments where and when nobody can go, then pleads poverty when nobody shows up. This is akin to the kid who kills both of his parents and then asks for mercy, because he's an orphan. When the home-game option was suggested to the AIA, an official said that it would be unfair, because the bottom seeds would have to travel great distances to play. Well, yeah, genius, except that under the current setup, all 16 teams have to travel great distances to get to Prescott (and pay for hotels and meals) while the AIA bleeds money on the deal.

While the financial concerns could be easily addressed, the AIA still has lost classroom time and travel (and lodging) costs incurred by the schools to claim as reasons. However, last year, if a team made it to the third round of the state basketball tournament, that school would have needed to pay for two trips to Prescott, paying for fuel as well as for lodging and meals for the players and coaches. This year, under the AIA's new (ostensibly austerity-based) system, a team that makes it to the third round of state will need to make three trips to Prescott.

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